The esoteric revisionism of the 18th and 19th Centuries produced many imaginative additions to the existing lexicon of divinatory keywords for the tarot trump cards, which was previously anemic at best. What was once a simple court jester – and mad at that – became a “wise Fool” with a mission, what began as an entertainer or mountebank was transformed into an arcane master, what was at one time presented as the “female Pope” became an expression of Isis and a keeper of occult secrets. The Empress continued this trend: the original idea was more a symbol of feminine power and authority than of fecundity. She was the wife, consort or sovereign widow of the Emperor; where his was the realm of law and order, hers was responsibility for the common well-being, hence the definition of “nurturing” often attached to this card. Her role – although largely ceremonial – had an administrative aspect, it wasn’t just to deliver a male heir to the Emperor. (Don’t quote me on any of this historical brief, I forget now where I read it.)
More recent interpretations of the Empress have completely turned this around, making her over into a benign “Earth Mother” rather than an arm of medieval governance and the female counterpart of the Emperor. The assignment of Venus as her astrological correspondence had as much to do with this as anything, along with attachment of the Hebrew letter Daleth – meaning “door” and implying a portal for the emergence into concrete form of an exalted inspiration or ideal. That ideal originates as a nebulous hint with the Fool, reminding me of the Al Pacino character of mobster “Big Boy” in the Dick Tracy film, who says near the end “I’m having a thought . . . it’s coming . . . it’s coming . . . it’s gone!” The Magician takes that tenuous thought and plays a metaphysical shell-game with it, confounding the credulous onlookers, then the High Priestess conceals it from profane eyes behind her veil. Only when it is fully-developed and ripe is it given an outlet to the world of manifestation: the literal “birth canal” of the Empress.
Venus is the planet of harmony, sensual pleasure and the creative arts, so the Empress has taken on these qualities in addition to those of child-birth and mothering. Her position as a “dominant” woman with a “strong, self-assured personality,” possibly a “manager or commander” (according to Yoav Ben-Dov) is often given short shrift in contemporary readings. The fact that she bears the shield and scepter of authority seems to be considered something of an anachronism and not worthy of mention.
I don’t get much mileage out of the “child-birth and nurture” paradigm in my own practice, preferring the more general interpretations of domestic harmony, material comfort and creative self-realization. The Empress is a card of good tidings and one of the best among the Major Arcana, so I see it as a benevolent harbinger of natural rather than forced growth. Her artifice is that of the organic gardener and not the bio-engineers and genetic scientists of modern commercial agriculture. Unlike the Emperor, she guides more than she rules, and her ways are firm but gentle unless thwarted in their purpose. When she is crossed (perhaps as suggested by reversal or poor dignity in a spread), think of the old Chiffon margarine commercial: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” A forum-mate of mine once characterized the dark side of the Empress as “a royal bitch.”